Thursday, May 29, 2014
Dilemma: A Forum For Transformation in Prison
Here in the Tomoka maximum security prison outside Daytona Beach, roaring car engines from the distant superspeedway call out to the inmates inside during race weeks. The sound of swaying palm fronds past the razor wire can be heard. But inside its gates, like all prisons, it is a stark, orderly environment filled with lonely stories of broken lives.
In an effort to offer inmates more than a holding cell for their term of incarceration, Horizon Communities in Prison, was established to usher better behaved inmates into community living and offer enhanced education. The 320 qualifying inmates live in a cavernous one-room complex, with access to computer terminals and educational opportunities. A group of businessmen enter the Horizon communities to meet with prisoners for two hours of discussion on the Abrahamic faiths.
I’m a long time volunteer for Horizon, and an avid reader of Trinity Forum’s materials. I pioneered a pilot program to teach Trinity Forum Readings in prison, putting together eight discussion modules, along with a presentation methodology. We’re now through our first semester, and the results have been nothing short of astounding.
I call the program “Dilemma.” We began this past January by asking the group to recall and discuss a favorite book, character or scene. Although most of the inmates are undereducated and poor, some referred to Tom Joad, Malcolm X, even Don Quixote. Most fell back upon action heroes or tales of assassins and SEAL teams. Asking these inmates to read was a challenge, but we all persisted.
At each meeting, a selected Trinity Forum Reading is distributed then introduced in a summary statement from the podium. At the following week’s gathering, the larger group divides into pod families for discussion. Each pod of ten or so inmates takes its name from consensus role models—Plato, Nobel, Ali, Gandhi, Gaulladet, Shakespeare, James Brown (yes, the Godfather of Soul).
At the conclusion of the evening, each pod has a volunteer step forward to the podium to discuss one predominant word or theme that surfaced in their discussion of the materials. Consistent with stories of moral values and suffering, words like “purpose” and “dignity” and “perseverance” emerge from one reading, “humility” and “compassion” and “virtue” from another.
The concluding week of each discussion module centers upon other pod members who step forward to share the absorption of the reading into their inner journeys. This is where the most moving testimony occurs, when personal confessions come forth like: “I too have come to the crossroads—where the helping hand from Victor Hugo’s bishop reached out to the monster I had become,” and “the Holocaust images that were once just nameless faces have come to life, thanks to Viktor Frankl.”
Probably the most revealing comment came from an inmate who had appeared suspicious of my motives. He asked, “What is this really all about? Where are you going with this?” I told him that I didn’t know. It’s all just about reading stories together.
This is where the magic of Dilemma plays out—in the organic, creative process of transformation. The inmates, deprived of freedom and self-determination, help shape the curriculum. They are treated with respect as peers. Many tell me they feel like this is the sort of college experience they never had. And even inmates who are wary of ministries have found themselves drawn in by the stories of grace and redemption. One said, “Chapel isn’t relevant to me. This is.”
The common denominator in the Readings is not incarceration, but transformation. Prisoners want to feel change is necessary and possible. Stories that show the possibility of transformation bring hope, and help form and reform an inmate’s moral and spiritual imagination. They want to be heard and loved unconditionally, to process and contribute.
One pod facilitator told me, “We dedicate time each week for our family to read the materials aloud, and one of us opens up a dictionary to work on words we don’t understand. Your coming into our lives is the highlight of our week.”
I walk into Tomoka each Tuesday evening, hear the massive steel door clang behind me, and round the corner to be greeted by all seventy-nine men with Trinity Forum Readings in their laps who erupt into cheers. We smile and embrace in brotherly love. And together, we learn. Dilemma, with The Trinity Forum materials provides broken lives and willing servants a forum for transformation.
Randy Robertson is the Founder and Executive Director of GladdeningLight.